The term aristocracy of the spirit may seem pretentious or arrogant, especially if it comes from those who think they are better than others or have a right to flout the laws that bind “lesser” mortals. The notion can lead to the worst spiritual pride imaginable. I have found this term in the various writings of Nicholas Berdyaev and others who were interested in an orthodox Christian form of Gnosticism as expressed in the Alexandrian school. This theme is implicit in the whole Romantic way, whether in the early nineteenth century properly speaking, or at any other time when spiritual humanity reacted from the excesses of reformations, cruelty, rationalism, technology and socialism.
I always like to define words carefully. Aristocracy, in its classical meaning, describes those who are born of noble families close to or even related to the royal family of a country. The word comes from the Greek ἄριστος meaning excellent or best. Aristocracy means rule by a small elite of the best. In ancient Greece, it was thought of a rule by the most meritorious and best-qualified, contrasted to rule by an individual who was born of a royal family. Later, aristocracy was contrasted with democracy. Berdyaev uses these terms by way of an analogy to describe the human spirit and contrast those who live above the common materialistic life of most people.
I had a long conversation with two friends in London a few days ago about the notion that the Church, in particular the Roman Catholic Church was, using computer language, in a state of complete system failure. No amount of work would repair the system other that a complete hard reboot. Roman Catholicism has painted itself into a corner with its notion of Papal infallibility that no amount of apologetics can save it from inevitable decline. Perhaps such a view is exaggerated, because it seems to be finished in most of Europe, but an evangelical and charismatic form seems to be growing in China, Africa and South America. A good thing or a flash in the pan? Who knows, but many of us are not attracted to that kind of “mass” democratic religion any more than popular variety shows on television. Why? Some of us see something different, understand something deeper, yearn for what is not there. I have discussed this to a great extent when writing about Romanticism. Shelley professed to be an atheist, but his poetry reveals a profound spirituality and yearning for the transcendent.
In my examination of Romanticism, I see a massive split between the yearnings and aspiration of the few against the unshriven majority of people in the world and milling in the places of pilgrimage like Rome and Lourdes. Some turned away from Christianity but not for power and money. Nietzsche asked the most agonised questions of Christianity, and many of his reproaches were justified. There was Christ and Christianity – and then there was the pitiful inadequacy of Christians. Does such a notion cast a doubt on the very validity of Christianity? Religious institutions throughout history have chased and stoned prophets, artists and creators.
Those who have become Christians in freedom and through suffering cannot pretend to be the average lukewarm cradle member of their Church. A free soul knows no compulsion or laws, and his faith comes from experience. Christianity becomes spiritual and mystical, escaping all the stereotypes. It is born of spirit, not matter – a perfect expression of gnostic dualism. At the same time, the soaring spirit is bound to its vocation of raising the lower to the higher, sanctifying the soul (anima) and material things which are part of God’s creation.
Berdyaev speaks of three main stages of religious growth: popular and social natural religion, what Jung would call individuation, and finally, the heights of spirituality. It is the first dimension that is undergoing the greatest crisis – the Church, dioceses and parishes. The Church has always had to live with the tension between spiritual aristocracy and looking after the ordinary folk. Different periods of history have varying judgements of aristocracy and socialist movements. The usual presumption is that the small minorities (today the ultra-rich) exploit the majority and should be made to pay for it. Socialism as a political ideology seems to be prevailing, yet the rich still get richer as the political left converges with the holders of ultimate power. Yet I am not talking of politics or money, but another dimension altogether. The world is made for the majority that lives at a democratic level, the average man, the collective, the state, the law and so forth. It is only to be expected. Actually, history works out in favour of the majority, not for the aristocracy.
Those who are of the spirit see through the world in which they live, and their anarchism exists at another level. We can’t do away with the world, law or authority, but we can be above it. We all have to compromise with the world, with society, with the Church and with our own bodies, and these things prevent us from flying off into the worst of spiritual pride and the evil dark side. We develop a love for the world we are called to duc in altum, to lead high and sanctify. We have to have compassion for the poor, the sick and the distressed because we share their mortality. Aristocrats of the spirit are those who suffer the most and can become very unstuck. Only yesterday, I was looking at the failed marriage of Wesley as he was divided between domestic life, a woman with unreasonable expectations and his vocation as a Christian missionary. The aristocrat lives according to values that are of no use to most people, still less understood. He suffers from barbarity, ugliness, banality and many of the things that are just part of the life of “ordinary” people.
This notion was central to the drama of the Gnostics. Many of those people were genuine aristocrats of the spirit, but failed to compromise with the “system” or the popular church. As Berdyaev says, “had the Gnostics won the day, Christianity would never have been victorious. It would have been turned into an aristocratic sect“. On the other hand, the ecclesial reaction was excessive. Must a complex and spiritual type of person be brought down to a level with which he cannot identify? One is brought to think of the parable of the talents or hiding lamps under bushels. St Paul talks of meat and milk. Most Christians need to be fed on milk and pastored like sheep, but this spiritual fare is not enough for the spirituals. Often enough, paradoxically, spirituals have no pretence of greater holiness or virtue, often less than the man who works hard in the ordinary way. Greater responsibilities are met with heavier contradictions. The temptation to spiritual pride is always just round the corner, the reason why the Church condemned the Gnostics.
Salvation is for all and Christ came to transfigure the lower into the higher. A study of Valentinian Gnosticism will reveal a lack of understanding about freedom and the possibility of transfiguration. For some years, I have been quite fascinated with Gnosticism and some of its present-day proponents. Some of them have even tried to build up Gnostic churches and associations, including Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism and Martinism. Perhaps the lay associations are stable and abiding, but I have never seen a stable and sensible gnostic church (there are plenty of “phantom” ones on the internet!). Mainstream Christianity has to navigate a delicate course between the Scylla of spiritual elitism and the Charybdis of materialism and positivism. The Church is in one heck of a mess!
As I discussed with my friends, no one can do anything about the Church. We can join a smaller Church that has everything for the Universal Church to subsist in it. We have to become ourselves and work as individual persons in what we do best. I look at John Wesley, but also at Keats, Shelley, Tolkein and Vaughan Williams where the highest is found, where beauty is an icon of love and truth. We lament when the Church imitates the kind of socialism that seeks to crush the spirit in the name of conformity and political correctness, and to quench every last form of spiritual aristocracy.
Those of us who find ourselves in this aristocracy despite ourselves find life very hard. The reason for this is that we have been in some way let into the secret (no dark covens or funny handshakes. Don’t get me wrong – I belong to no association other than my Church and my sailing club). We still have to work, pay bills and relate to wives and friends. The difference it makes is our whole system of priorities and values. We have no spiritual father to fall back on. We are on our own and have to manage, and shipwreck is only one tiny manoeuvre away, just like beaching my boat at high tide with a strong sea swell! We become that much more aware of our sinfulness. All we can do is to go forward and create in mind of the Parable of the Talents. From he who has received, much will be expected. I fear God’s judgement! At the same time, we have to have complete confidence in Christ’s love and that thing that connects us with the sanctified world – which is the Church. The effort has to be made to connect and relate, so that the lower may be transfigured into the higher.
It is certainly this latter thought that brings meaning to my priestly calling and my daily Mass for the application in time of the eternal Mystery of Christ and the redemption of the poorest and lowest. Nothing is too humble for God’s love.